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Surprise announcement by feds last week ends the biggest white-collar crime case in the state's history with a narcotics prosecution against a lawyer.

Former Petters lawyer’s safe places him in jeopardy

As you probably have heard by now, Tom Petters’ former chief counsel, David Baer, faces drug possession charges. Federal authorities recently filed a complaint stating that, when they raided the offices of Petters Worldwide in 2008, they found cocaine, ecstasy and meth (along with Baer’s passport) in a locked safe underneath the then 35-year-old lawyer’s desk. 

No word yet on why the feds waited two years to bring these charges against Baer. Perhaps, like Geraldo Rivera with Al Capone’s vault, they were waiting for a dramatic moment. It didn’t work out so well for Rivera. Of course, Baer’s safe, unlike Capone’s vault, was far from empty.

After the collapse of the financial house of cards that was Petters Worldwide, federal authorities vigorously went after Petters and several of his corporate cohorts, who are now serving lengthy prison sentences. It appeared that Baer had emerged unscathed from the criminal prosecutions. (He is, however, a defendant in a civil case seeking repayment of $3.2 million in corporate bonuses he received.)

With the recent drug charges, it now appears that Baer will, after all, get a first-hand tour of the federal criminal justice system. It’s an extremely odd twist in a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi case to try to bring down a top corporate officer like Baer with drug-possession charges. It seems a little low-rent for such a high-profile white-collar crime case.

Baer was only in his early 30s when he was put in a top corporate counsel position normally reserved for a much more seasoned lawyer. In recognition of Baer’s rapid rise to such a position of prominence, Minnesota Lawyer named him one of its 15 “Attorneys of the Year” for 2006.

Knowing now what we do about Tom Petters, and his schemes, we have to wonder whether he had an agenda in making a young, relatively inexperienced lawyer his legal counsel. Perhaps an older, more experienced lawyer would have discovered things that Baer apparently didn’t.

Could the fact that the young attorney found himself in over his head — at a company starting to unravel — lead to what was found in his safe? And why exactly did the feds wait two years to prosecute Baer? Were they hoping to be able to charge him with something bigger? Were they trying to leverage some evidence out of him that he refused to give? Or were they waiting until they had finished prosecuting all the financial crimes to finish the company lawyer off for desert?

The answers to those questions are all currently as inscrutable as if they were locked tight in a safe. And that safe represents a Pandora’s box of troubles for a young lawyer whose rapid rise now appears to have been on wings of wax.

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